As defense attorneys ask a jury to spare Nikolas Cruz from receiving the death penalty, they claimed Monday that the Parkland shooter’s brain was “poisoned” by his mom’s drinking and drug abuse when she was pregnant.
Melisa McNeill, Cruz’s lead defense attorney, said her client’s brain was “irretrievably broken through no fault of his own.” In her first time speaking in court, McNeill asked jurors to consider the 23-year-old’s dark childhood when analyzing what eventually led Cruz to massacre 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.
“In telling you Nik’s story, in telling you the chapters of his life, we will give you reasons for life,” McNeill said.
McNeill said Cruz’s biological mother, Brenda Woodard, was a crack addict and prostitute who abused drugs and alcohol so much that Cruz developed fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and antisocial personality disorder at birth. These conditions then prohibited Cruz from living a normal life, McNeill said, despite him being adopted as an infant.
McNeill added that Cruz never met his father, who’s suspected of being either a john or a rapist.
The defense hopes these childhood circumstances will convince at least one juror that Cruz shouldn’t receive the death penalty for his crimes, as even a single juror’s objection would prevent him from being sentenced to death, per Florida law.
Cruz pleaded guilty in October to 17 counts of murder. Ever since, prosecutors have sought to have Cruz sentenced to death, while the defense has asked for a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors have argued that Cruz acted in a “cold, calculated, and cruel manner” when he went to his former high school and gunned down classmates and teachers—actions they say are worthy of the death penalty.
In countering, the defense on Monday called Cruz’s sister, Danielle Woodard, to the stand. She said it was the first time she’d been in the same room as Cruz since she held him as a baby.
Woodard testified that her mother abused drugs and alcohol throughout her childhood, which created a hostile environment. This partially excluded Cruz, however, as he was placed up for adoption shortly after his birth in 1998.
“She had an addiction. She always put that first, before me, or him,” Woodard said of her mother, Brenda, who died last year. “She introduced me to a life that no child should be introduced to. She had no regard for my life or his life.”
Woodard testified that she held Cruz as a baby but hadn’t been in the same room as him until Monday. Woodard likely won’t be the last sibling to testify, CNN reports. Florida approved a motion for the depositions of Zachary Cruz, the gunman’s brother, and Richard Moore, who Zachary lives with in Virginia. Both are set to testify in September.
“Wounded and damaged people wound and damage other people,” McNeill said, “because they are in pain…But we don’t excuse the horrific acts of damaged and wounded people. We punish them. But we take into consideration their damage when we impose sentence.”